The last few nights I’ve been feverishly (literally; I’ve felt like crap, although I seem to be doing better today) working on a presentation that I have to deliver next weekend at the Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I am supposed to play resident music critic and talk for an hour and a half on the role of the music critic and how to approach musical criticism from a Christian perspective. My audience will be a bunch of writers, academics, musicians, and rabid music fans, most of whom will know a lot more about trends in contemporary popular music than I do. In the words of every critic’s favorite band Radiohead, “What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here.”
At this point I really don’t know how this is going to come together. I know a few things; the title of my workshop, for instance. It’s “Dancing About Architecture.” It’s from a semi-famous quote from singer/songwriter Elvis Costello, which is: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture — it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.”
The thing is, Elvis is mostly right. Music goes far beyond a “message” or a “theme” (you hear that, CCM world?) In fact, music affects us so viscerally and so subjectively that trying to summarize its impact or reduce its power to a few principles seems hopelessly misguided and ineffective. It’s like stating that Moby Dick is a book about a white whale. It’s true, but it misses the whole point.
And the point (I think) is that music has the power to move us, shape us, change the way we see ourselves and God and the world around us. And it short-circuits the whole objective, cognitive process. How can I explain to people that Miles Davis’ album Kind of Blue -- an album of all-instrumental jazz made by a non-Christian – has led to one of the most profound worship experiences in my life, that it reaches me in deep places that no doctrinal catechism can ever reach, that there are moments of such intense beauty there that the only proper response is to fall to my knees and thank God for the wonder of His creation? And how can I explain that another person – a bright, spiritually aware person, at that – can hear the same album and be totally unmoved? What is the mystery there? How do you fathom that, and how do you communicate it to a group of people from widely different backgrounds and beliefs?
Here’s another quote I really like from critic/enfante terrible Lester Bangs, one of the first rock critics, founder of Creem Magazine, and the subject of the film Almost Famous from a few years back. I really like it, although it may be a bit over-the-top, particularly for my Christian audience. I’m tempted to use it anyway because it cuts so close to the bone.
"Rock writing is, and nearly always has been, the trade of simps, wimps, displaced machos, brats and saps; of asskissers of the ruling class; of fuddyduddy archivists with cobwebs on their specs; of pathetic idealizers of a lost youth no one has ever — even approximately — experienced or possessed; of sycophantic apologists for chi-chi trends, musical and extramusical alike, without which — so they've always claimed — "rock is dead"; of binary yes/no cheeses with the cognitive wherewithal of vinyl, shrinkwrap, the physical column-inch."
There is so much that rings true there. There is a herd mentality that characterizes much of contemporary popular music criticism. And there are a few rules that apply: The weirder the music is, the better it is. New is good; old is bad, unless it’s from the 1960s. There is an accepted and generally understood canon of rock music that is above reproach, and woe to the critic who dares to question the canon, for he shall be excommunicated from the simpering fold, and shall dwell in outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth and playing of Abba records.
I encounter people all the time – Baby Boomers like myself who were raised on The Beatles and The Stones and Motown and Dylan – who bemoan the current state of popular music, who are stuck in some bizarre Woodstock timewarp where they’re convinced that no decent music has been released since Led Zeppelin IV (ah, the golden age of Roman numerals) and that it’s all been downhill since John married Yoko.
I feel bad for these folks, but I don’t believe them. It’s easy enough for it to happen. You get out of college, you get a real job, and you stop paying attention, and eventually you focus on fertilizer debates with your suburban neighbors (Ortho Weed ‘n Feed: Better For Your Lawn Than Scott’sTurfbuilder?) and golf and your investment portfolio instead of some hot new band from London or NYC. But I still don’t believe them. I don’t believe them because I’ve never grown up, at least in that sense (my wife could perhaps list others) and don’t want to, and because I hear new music all the time that still provides that same visceral thrill that I experienced when I first heard Led Zeppelin IV or The White Album.
It’s the same reaction. It’s the same commingling of excitement and awe and (God forbid, this coming from a depressive type) just plain joy that accompanies the discovery of some musician or some band who says the same old sweet nothings that rock ‘n roll has said for fifty years, but says them in a way, either musically or lyrically or both, that it all sounds fresh and vital and new. I’d like to believe that God is wrapped up in that process. In fact, I know He is.
And that’s what I’d like to talk about at Calvin College. And that’s probably what I will talk about at Calvin College. But I surely don’t know how to make a systematic presentation out of that. So I suspect that I’m going to play music and tell stories. I don’t know of any other way to communicate the ineffable.